Big Interview: Ross Buchanan.

Ross Buchanan is the General Manager for Hilti New Zealand, a Diversity Agenda Accord signatory who supply products, systems, software and services to the construction and energy industries. 

In this month’s Big Interview, we kōrero with Ross to find out about positive changes Hilti have made for both a more diverse and, importantly, more inclusive workplace.

How did you end up where you are now – a Scotsman living in Auckland, General Manager for Hilti?

Did my accent give me away? I am indeed not of this land, but it’s where my heart is now. I was born, raised and educated in Glasgow, Scotland. I came over to New Zealand on the 13th of October 2008 – a date I remember vividly as it coincided with the day the global financial crisis hit the UK. I came over as I have family here and I wanted an opportunity to work internationally.

I joined Hilti as a sales manager based in Christchurch, working with a diverse team of account managers. I have a marketing background and I had worked in a variety of construction product and services companies in Wroclaw, Poland and the UK.

So, you would have been quite familiar with the diversity and inclusion issues within the construction sector?

Definitely. In both the UK and Europe, it was very much a male-dominated industry, and the same is true for New Zealand. At Hilti New Zealand we have a very diverse, international workforce, thanks to our brand and global reach. But we do lack diversity in terms of gender, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, and opportunities for tangata whenua – in order to represent the full spectrum of New Zealanders.

What is Hilti doing to change that?

We’ve worked hard on gender diversity to begin with. Globally, it’s the most obvious issue for Hilti, particularly in terms of leadership roles. I started with a complete overhaul of the leadership team in New Zealand – which just a few years back was a boys’ club in more than one sense of the word. I wanted to create a more inclusive environment – a professional organisation that was also a fun place to work. I also wanted to make it much more welcoming for all, and parent friendly.

Tell me more about any specific initiatives that arose from your desire to make Hilti more diverse and inclusive.

Firstly, I set about changing the tone of management to create an honest and inclusive environment, where everyone has a voice, and everyone can speak openly and freely. And one in which managers walk the talk – where people can provide feedback and know that management will act on that feedback.

The second change was about creating development opportunities for everyone. Previously, in my opinion, there was some bias, where only certain types of people would be put into leadership roles. I really wanted to change this as it had created a very one-dimensional decision-making and leadership culture, born out of a very similar group of people leading the company.

We now have people from a range of professional backgrounds, different nationalities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations on our leadership team. I believe that’s made a huge difference in our decision-making capability and our ability to be more agile in a crisis. I believe that having a diverse team of people in leadership roles helped us navigate the COVID-19 pandemic as well as we possibly could.

Have you made any changes since COVID-19 that have made Hilti a more inclusive place to work?

First, we told everyone they could work from home if they wanted to. We just ask people to be in the office at least 50% of the time and it’s a guideline, not a rule. We recognise some of our people thrive working from home, and others who are neurodiverse who need the structure of working in the office. This is something I am quite passionate about because my son is autistic, and I really appreciate and understand how important it is for some to have structure and a clear delineation between work and home.

In terms of the office itself, we looked out at the sea of desks and thought: What’s the point in coming in and checking emails for eight to ten hours a day when you can do that at home, and avoid the terrible Auckland traffic?

We wanted the physical space to be somewhere people could collaborate, innovate, and connect. So, we completely redesigned it.

To make the office more inclusive, we built a quiet zone for people who are neurodiverse, a soundproof spot with lots of tactile surfaces where people could just go and chill. There’s one rule in there – you’re not allowed to work. I recently saw someone sleeping in there, and I felt like my work here was done. I was just so happy they felt comfortable to do that – as it means they know we trust them to do the mahi, get the results, and take time out to rest when they need to.

We also built a parenting room. I was absolutely mortified to hear one of the team members had nowhere to change their baby when visiting the office and knew we had to fix that. So, we created a space to look after children’s and parents’ needs. There’s a comfy chair to feed your baby on, a fridge and changing facilities.

To keep spirits up during COVID, we did a lot of communicating, so we created what we call a ‘town hall’. Moving away from the stuffy boardroom, it’s essentially a tiered amphitheatre within the office, with lots of natural light. A place where people can get together for meetings, but also just to spend time connecting and collaborating.

All these physical changes have fundamentally shifted the social fabric of the office – because people don’t come in just to check emails anymore, or just to be seen in the office. They’re here to do something, to build relationships, to innovate and create.

How have people responded to the changes and the shift in mentality?

There’s been a lot of positive feedback, but there were also a few raised eyebrows, especially around the idea of having kids in the office. I speak for myself, but there’s no way I would intentionally bring my kids to work. But sometimes you’re caught out, with no childcare. We don’t want people to feel uncomfortable when that happens.

Also, it’s what’s needed if we want to have a more diverse workplace, with more women who feel comfortable starting a family. There’s a huge talent force out there I want to tap into, particularly with STEM backgrounds, and I can’t attract women without giving them a long-term career option that also enables them to have children and accelerate their career.

Has your international experience given you any insights to apply at Hilti when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

During my time working in Asia, I quickly learned there was no such thing as Asia. It’s obviously a very heterogeneous collection of cultures and my time spent in Hong Kong and Singapore really gave me an understanding and appreciation of those different cultures and what they bring to the table.

Something else I’ve learned from leading diverse teams is that it’s all very well putting a bunch of different people one room, but to build a strong and high-performing team you need to create an inclusive environment. Diversity is important, but without inclusion you won’t be able to make the most of people’s differences. In my opinion, the best way to build inclusion is to build trust and you can only do that through authentic, humble leadership.

How do you foster respect for cultural differences across a global organisation?

We invest heavily in initiatives and training courses to help people understand their natural biases, as well as regular opportunities for people from different offices and countries to get together.

Each employee must go through a course called Beyond Bias, where we explore conscious and unconscious bias, as well how to create and work inclusively. Every two years each team goes off site for a team camp. This is a combination of team building, sharpening of team priorities with a focus on building high performing teams. Just before COVID the theme was ‘Care & Perform’ where we worked on resilience and how to manage peak stress and peak performance. It was very useful going into the crisis.

We also actively encourage the movement of our people around the world, which not only helps to break down peoples’ prior perceptions of other cultures, but also creates diverse and international teams in most of our offices. We are a product of internally developed management across the world, moving around the world, and have 21 nationalities in our head office.

Are there any areas you feel the need to improve upon?

Sexual orientation feels like one area we need to work harder on. In a traditionally very male-dominated and old-fashioned industry like construction, we’re asking ourselves how we can do a better job in creating an environment where people can embrace their sexuality and/or gender identity without having to hide it. Where people can feel they can be themselves at work and not be discriminated against.

I’m also passionate about creating a culture where neurodiversity is embraced and leveraged for success. I’m keen to work with and learn from any other Diversity Accord signatories in this space.

Another point I want to reach, is a 50/50 split when it comes to the hiring pool. So, we ensure we have 50 per cent of candidates from minority groups and then we pick the best person for the job from that pool. I don’t believe in just hiring to meet a quota, or positively discriminating, as I feel it sets that person up for failure.

Without positive discrimination, how do you ensure you get the right applicants to “fill the funnel” and create the 50/50 split of candidates?

In various ways. We work hard to build our employer brand with Canterbury University as it’s a good source of graduate engineers. We work closely with NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction), and we invest in advocates – successful female leaders in the company. We use social media to tell their stories and to promote Hilti as a technology company that works in construction, rather than a construction company – to change the narrative and attract more diverse candidates.

Can you tell me a little bit about why you signed the Diversity Agenda Accord?

I’m passionate about making a difference and I see being a Diversity Accord signatory as a great opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from other leaders about how to create a truly diverse workplace. I want to create an environment where neurodiversity is championed, partly because it’s very personal to me, but also because I feel it’s often overlooked as something that’s slightly too nebulous, difficult for people to grasp.

As a manufacturer who provides hardware, services, and software to the industry, I like being able to add a different perspective. We all have a part to play in changing the narrative and creating a more diverse and inclusive sector that secures a better future for our country.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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